Thursday, January 31, 2008
In a way, I feel as if I've read much of it before, in Pollan's New York Times articles and previous books. But he makes compelling points about the problems of nutritionism: his word for the reductionist science that tells us that healthful eating requires analysis and consciousness of the composite chemicals in food. Much of the book is about the limitations of nutritionism and how it misses the big picture.
Here are a couple of major points from the book:
The "Western diet" is the way we eat in the USA today -- "lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of everything -- except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains." This diet is associated with "a predictable series of Western diseases, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer." Further: "...traditional diets that the new Western foods displaced were strikingly diverse: Various populations thrived on diets that were what we'd call high fat, low fat, or high carb; all meat or all plant; indeed there have been traditional diets based on just about any kind of whole food you can imagine. What this suggests is that the human animal is well adapted to a great many different diets. The Western diet, however, is not one of them." (p. 10-11)
About the so-called French paradox: "...it seems unlikely that any single food, nutrient, or mechanism will ever explain the French paradox; more likely, we will someday come to realize there never was a paradox. Dietary paradoxes are best thought of as breakdowns in nutritionist thinking, a sign of something wrong with the scientific consensus rather than the diet in question." (p. 178)
Pollan belongs to a trend that's questioning big agriculture, big science, big supermarket biz, big food processing. His approach is challenging because it's also counter to so much that we have learned is "known" by science, but that really doesn't explain many of the unhappy facts of modern life. A good book, I think.
Monday, January 28, 2008
To supply London markets in the 18th century with fattened geese, drovers walked their flocks from the countryside, after fattening them at various points along the way. They sold a few geese here and there to people who wanted to finish raising them for some special occasion such as Christmas. Turkey drovers, too, delivered flocks from rural areas to urban marketplaces. Imagine what it was like when hundreds of geese or turkeys walked by your home or your cart. (Thirsk, Food in Early Modern England, p. 255)
Long-distance delivery of meat developed at various times. By the end of the 19th century, refrigerated ships could bring large volumes of mutton, lamb, and other meat around the world from New Zealand to England -- quite a change from the delivery of meat on the hoof (or on the webbed foot!)
Yet in France in the mid-20th century, shepherds still herded sheep from Provence up into the hills for summer grazing, a custom called transhumance. I have a friend in Paris whose grandparents and other relatives still farmed in the Var region 50 years ago. She told me about an aunt whose husband she hardly knew, because he was a shepherd who spent the summers in the mountains with his flocks. Traditional sheep-raising still goes on in that part of France, though the herdsmen today use trucks to transport the sheep from winter barns in the valleys to mountain pastures.
American frontier songs, Medieval Provencal tales, Bible stories, Greek myths -- all often reflect a tension between farmers and herders. I've been thinking about how dramatically different times were, when you might see your potential dinner walking down the road. People say they want a closer understanding of what they eat. This led me to such a funny collection of miscellaneous historic meat facts.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Saturday, January 26, 2008
I've had a slow cooker since the first fad for them. The one in my pantry now is the second or third one I've owned: I actually wear them out! Here are a few things I make in my slow cooker: chilli, Carbonades a la Flamande (a Julia Child beef & beer stew), lamb shanks, turkey stock, veal stew, ABC stew (Apricots, Beef, Carrots, an Argentine stew).
My immersion blender is my newest toy -- here are a few things I've tried with it: gazpacho, guacamole, hummus, cucumber soup, black bean dip, Muhamarra, Mexican cocoa.
For the rest, I'm not all that imaginative. My mixer was a Mother's Day gift when Evelyn was a little girl, and I mainly use it for cakes and cookie dough. I use the LittlePro Cuisinart for shredding potato pancake ingredients -- it's chute makes it ideal for shredding. I use the big and very old Cuisinart for pizza or pie dough and a few other things.
I steam veggies in the steamer when I am not in such a hurry that they go in the microwave. I use the popcorn popper, the tortilla maker, the espresso machine, and most of the other gadgets predictably for whatever they are meant for.
Could I get along without the gadgets? Most days, I use a baking dish or a frying pan or a soup pot. Michael Pollan says to eat food, not too much, mostly plants. I think I have an analogous philosophy of gadgets: cook food, not too much, mainly simple. Not too much electricity -- I use a salad spinner for salad. I use a water boiler, a filter, and a vacuum jug for coffee.
All in all, my pantry has more gadgets than food. I'm not much of a squirrel.
*Also on my Mona Lisa hobby see Mona Lisa is really Mrs. Gioconda and What did Mona Lisa Eat?
Monday, January 21, 2008
During his first voyage in 1769, Cook began trading for food with the local inhabitants of his first major stop: Tahiti. At first, two representatives “regularly came out to the ship with gifts of pigs, chickens, coconuts, bananas, yams and breadfruit.” Later, “a set of trading guidelines were established – a spike nail for a small pig; a hatchet for a hog; a small spike nail for a chicken; twenty coconuts or breadfruit for a forty-penny nail; ten for a white glass bead and six for an amber one.” (Salmond, p. 68)
As the voyages proceeded, Cook’s men constantly obtained food from the natives and gathered wild foods on unguarded islands. They had to do so to provision their ships with fresh food, as well as taking on drinking water wherever they could. In time, they tried a wide variety of new foods. The exotic fruits and vegetables cultivated on indigenous farms were usually very pleasing to Cook and his crew. Fish, sea birds, turtles, and shellfish were often more familiar. He described the foods of New Zealand: “The Sea Bays and Rivers abound with a great varity of excellent fish the most of them unknown in England, besides Lobsters which were allow’d by every body to be the best they ever had eat, Oysters and many other sorts of shell fish all excellent in their kind.” (Journals, p. 55)
Here is a photo of islands in the area where Cook had much contact with the Maori of New Zealand:
While exploring the Antarctic region, he wrote: “The Penguin is an amphibious bird so well known to most people that I shall only observe that they are here in prodigious numbers and we could knock down as many as we pleased with a stick. I cannot say they are good eating, I have indeed made several good meals of them but it was for want of better victuals…. Shags [cormorants] breed here in vast numbers and we took on board not a few, as they are very good eating.” (Journals, p. 182)
Domestic animals were fewer and smaller than in Europe; the natives were always amazed at the livestock – sheep, cattle, goats – on board Cook's ships. In Tahiti, Cook wrote: “For tame Animals they have Hogs Fowls and Dogs the latter of which we learnd to eat from them and few were there of us but what allowe’d that a South Sea Dog was next to an English Lamb.” Cook suspected that the dogs’ vegetarian diet (provided by the natives) contributed to making them good to eat. He concluded: “little can be said in favour of their fowles but their Pork is most excellent.” The local diet was undoubtedly more pleasant than shipboard dinners which might include “Pease Soup, Salt Beef and Pork.” On his third and last voyage, Cook’s cargo from London included “a Bull, 2 Cows with their Calves & some sheep … at His Majestys Command and expence” which he was to present to his friends in Tahiti. (Journals, p. 35, 174, & 205)
In contrast to the farmers of Polynesia and New Zealand, the Australian Aboriginals hunted and gathered their food. Cook wrote of them: “Natives know nothing of Cultivation. … Land Animals are scarce, as far as we know confined to a very few species; … the sort that is in the greatest plenty is the Kangooroo, or Kanguru so called by the Natives; we saw a good many of them about Endeavour River, but kill’d only Three which we found very good eating.” Although Cook’s men were open minded, there were exceptions. For example, English sailors didn’t want to eat sharks perhaps because sharks “fed on human flesh.” Cook wrote: “indeed hardly any thing came amiss to us that could be eat by man.” (Journals, p. 82; Thomas, p. 41, Journals, p. 55)
Cook was constantly concerned with providing healthful nutrition to officers, sailors, and accompanying scientists on his voyages. He insisted on the men’s cooperation in eating their rations, and went as far, in one instance, to give two sailors “12 lashes each for refusing to take their allowance of fresh beef.” What he saw in their refusal was mutinous insolence -- not to be tolerated. (Thomas, p. 39)
In 1773, on his second voyage, Cook commanded an ambitious joint expedition of two boats. Throughout this and other voyages he was most worried about scurvy – and considerably more successful in fighting it than many contemporaries. Here is one description of his measures: “Being a fine day I hoisted a boat out and sent aboard the Adventure [the other boat] to inquire into the state of her crew when I learnt that her cook was dead and about Twenty more were attacked with the Scurvy and Flux; at this time we had only three men on the Sick list and only one of them of the Scurvy, several more however began to shew some symptoms of it and were accordingly put upon the Wort, Marmalade of Carrots, Rot of Lemons and Oranges.” Cook’s measures against scurvy included instructing the ship’s cook: “to Brew Beer of the Inspissated juce of Wort, Essence of Spruce and Tea plant … for the Sick, to inlarge their allowance of Sour Krout, to boil Cabbage in their Pease, to serve Wine in lieu of Spirit and lastly to shorten their allowance of Salt Meat.” (Journals, p. 129)
The expedition was not always lucky with unfamiliar foods. Of one incident Cook reported: “The Night before we came out of Port two Red fish about the size of large Bream and not unlike them were caught with hook and line of which Most of the Officers and Some of the Petty officers dined the next day. In the Evening every one who had eat of these fish were seiz’d with Violent pains in the head and Limbs, so as to be unable to stand, together with a kind of Scorching heat all over the Skin, there remained no doubt but that it was occasioned by the fish being of a Poisonous nature and communicated its bad effects to every one who had the ill luck to eat of it even to the Dogs and Hogs.” A dog and a hog died; the men recovered. Another episode of fish poisoning resulted from eating the liver and roe of an unknown fish resembling a sun fish. (Journals, p. 169 & 174)
Cook’s philosophy of how to treat his men was also reflected in how he distributed scarce provisions. In Australia, food was scarce, and the natives were unwilling to barter as the Polynesians had done. He wrote: “The refreshments we got here” -- on the Endeavor River -- “were chiefly Turtle… Whatever refreshment we got that would bear a division I caused to be equally divided amongst the whole compney generally by weight, the meanest person in the Ship had an equal share with my self or any one on board, and this method every commander of a Ship on such a Voyage as this ought ever to observe.” (Journals, p. 74)
In Kauai, Hawaii, in January 1778, Cook made first contact with Hawaiian islanders. Cook’s men were preparing to search north of Alaska for the Northwest Passage. They loaded 200 green turtles on board the ships. They also got to know the Hawaiians: “The sailors were surprised to find that these people spoke a language very like Tahitian, and thrilled when [the Hawaiians] assured them that there were plenty of pigs, chickens, breadfruit, sweet potatoes, plantains, sugar-cane and coconuts on their island.” (Salmond, p. 380)
Returning from the Arctic, on December 1, 1778, Cook reached the island of Hawaii: “Over the following days… canoes flying white flags brought out large quantities of pigs, breadfruit, taro, and sugar-cane. Cook, concerned that his supply of spirits would not last for another season of Arctic exploration, ordered sugar-cane beer to be brewed and served to the sailors.” At the Hikiau Temple south of Kealakekua Bay (shown in photos above) Cook described a number of offerings on a ritual platform: “A rotting hog lay on this stage, which had a pile of sugar-cane, coconuts, breadfruit, plantains.” As Cook stood on a tower near the platform priests chanted the Kumulipo, a cosmological chant. (Salmond, p. 391 & 396)
At the beginning of his visit to the island of Hawaii, Cook enjoyed the admiration and even the worship of the Hawaiian people, who took him for a god named Lono. He was able to acquire large supplies of food, and prepared to continue his voyage. He left with a very high opinion of the Hawaiian natives.
Throughout Cook’s three Pacific expeditions, the most troubling issue relating to food was cannibalism among some of the tribes. The English revulsion was shared by some of the non-cannibal Tahitian natives who traveled with them. For a time, Cook and his company weren’t expecting to find cannibals, and doubted the evidence of cannibalism. But they saw indirect indications like some freshly eaten human bones in a basket that was opened accidentally. Reality jolted them: for example, when some Maoris saw a joint of mutton among the ship’s provisions and expressed the assumption that it was human flesh. The size of sheep’s bones, larger than any animal in their experience, caused this conclusion. It also illuminated their unfortunate experience with eating human flesh.
The English mariners were really unhappy when they had to accept that cannibalism was common among the Maori of New Zealand. These were some of the most easily befriended people Cook encountered, but they habitually killed and ate their enemies. Cook expressed a hope that the Maori “will become more civilized and then and not till then this Custom may be forgot.” (Thomas, p. 212)
The truth became inescapable when a group of Maoris massacred and ate 20 men from Cook’s companion ship, the Adventure. The reaction of their companions, who found the remains, was overwhelming: “Such a shocking scene of Carnage & Barbarity as can never be mentiond or thought of, but with horror” wrote one of the witnesses. (Thomas, p. 253)
In the end, of course, Cook didn't go far from Hawaii. His ship turned out not to be seaworthy. Only a few days after his optimistic farewell, the Hawaiians, who had formerly been so friendly and treated Cook as the incarnation of the god Lono turned on him and at Kealakeua Bay (shown below) he met the same fate as the men from the Adventure.
Like his near-namesake Captain James Kirk on the Starship Enterprise, Captain James Cook went where no one had gone before. I think his voyages were much more exciting.
- A. Grenfell Price, ed. The Explorations of Captain James Cook in the Pacific as told by selections of his own journals 1768-1779. Dover Publications: New York, 1971.
- Anne Salmond. The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Encounters in the South Seas. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
- Nicholas Thomas. Cook: The Extraordinary Voyages of Captain James Cook. New York: Walker & Co., 2003.
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Everyone thinks about citrus at this time of year. I've been reading Citrus: A History, as I've mentioned. Today, the L.A.Times food section went over the top:
Plus in another article: "Blood oranges: These crimson-fleshed citrus fruits are another produce item that has gone almost instantly from obscure to commonplace. It wasn't so long ago that you practically had to travel to Sicily to find them. Now they're in grocery stores." See: Oranges that taste of summer berries by Russ Parsons.
The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food by New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee. In today's paper, Lee wrote a fascinating article on the Japanese origins of the fortune cookie: The Riddle of the Fortune Cookie, Solved -- including an audio slide show and a video.
Here is the essence: similarly shaped cookies with a fortune on a slip of paper were made by one or a few shops in Japan in the 19th century. The origins of these predecessor cookies have recently been explored, says the article, by Yasuko Nakamachi, a graduate student from Japan. The picture -- one of many in the article -- shows a modern, larger Japanese fortune cookie next to a typical American-Chinese one.
Chinese restaurants in California bought them at Japanese bakeries and began to distribute them -- dessert is expected by American diners, but not particularly a Chinese tradition. "A number of immigrant families in California, mostly Japanese, have laid claim to introducing or popularizing the fortune cookie," writes Lee in the article. "Among them are the descendants of Makoto Hagiwara, a Japanese immigrant who oversaw the Japanese Tea Garden built in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in the 1890s. Visitors to the garden were served fortune cookies made by a San Francisco bakery, Benkyodo."
As a Chinese restaurant tradition, the cookies took off as follows:
And so we know the origin of a tradition! Read the article for lots more detail. Also check out Jennifer 8. Lee's blog posts: Fortune Cookies are really from Japan and How did Japanese fortune cookies end up in Chinese restaurants?
"The cookie’s path is relatively easy to trace back to World War II. At that time they were a regional specialty, served in California Chinese restaurants, where they were known as “fortune tea cakes.” There, according to later interviews with fortune cookie makers, they were encountered by military personnel on the way back from the Pacific Theater. When these veterans returned home, they would ask their local Chinese restaurants why they didn’t serve fortune cookies as the San Francisco restaurants did.
"The cookies rapidly spread across the country. By the late 1950s, an estimated 250 million fortune cookies were being produced each year by dozens of small Chinese bakeries and fortune cookie companies. One of the larger outfits was Lotus Fortune in San Francisco, whose founder, Edward Louie, invented an automatic fortune cookie machine. By 1960, fortune cookies had become such a mainstay of American culture that they were used in two presidential campaigns: Adlai Stevenson’s and Stuart Symington’s."
Friday, January 11, 2008
In my final impression of the book, I feel that he includes a great deal of interesting material. While the weakest section of the book is his effort to interpret a number of poems, I really liked his section on painting. Here are a few more paintings with related quotes from the book:
Laszlo finds that there is "new logic at work in this 1916 painting. The bowl of oranges has dropped from all-important subject to mere pretext. The painting is calling attention to itself. The subject of the composition is the composition itself.... The painting by Zurbaran, as we saw, aimed at religious emotion. ... In the obverse paradox, the Matisse painting of oranges jettisons traditional rules of representation. In so doing it achieves a fullness of emotion.
This emotion came from Matisse's passion for oranges. The sight of them caused small daily epiphanies. Oranges were portents of joy, of the beauty in life."
"One of the proudest moments in Matisse's professional life was when Picasso in 1945 purchased his 1912 Still Life with a Basket of Oranges. This gave such pleasure to Matisse that henceforth, on New Year's Day, he would have a basket of oranges sent to his friend and great rival." And today, Matisse's painting is owned by the Musee Picasso in Paris.
Laszlo writes about the late 19th century painters: "The Impressionists were responsible for the resurrection of citrus fruits as objects worthy of depiction. Paul Cezanne, of the legendary apples, would often include oranges in his still lifes. With him, the interest shifted to the light and the forms, away from the texture and the naturalistic details that he seventeenth-century Dutch painters had been so keen on. Vincent van Gogh, with his fascination with the color yellow -- which some have blamed on absinthe and some on the professional disease of pica, which makes the sufferer crave camphor and turpentine -- included lemons in his still lifes, such as Still Life with Oranges, Lemons and Blue Gloves."
I say: what a pity, to reduce the genius of Van Gogh to a diagnosis, rather than to see him as transcending illness with art. But that's my opinion.
And to top off my opinion, here is a masterpiece that illuminates the symbolism of citrus (along with other symbols such as the bunch of coral above the Virgin's head and the Mandela) in the early Renaissance -- a work painted prior to any that Laszlo discusses. Below is Mantegna's Madonna of the Victories, along with a detail from the painting. It dates from 1496, when citrus culture was relatively new, though well known to Mangna's employers in Mantua, Italy, especially to Isabella d'Este, wife of the Marquis. I wonder how Laszlo missed this.
In the book Citrus: A History, author Pierre Laszlo takes a broader view of the painting. He points out the significance of the Asian origins of citrus, the rose, and the porcelain. In earlier chapters of the book, he had in fact traced the introduction of orange-growing, which originated in the Far East, and traveled along various trade routes through Arab lands and the Mediterranean. He thus presents a conjecture: "that the spirituality of this painting ... derives from Eastern mysticisms, such as Sufi mysticism and its placement of the supreme value on purity." He sees an allegory: "To look at this painting is to open oneself, one's inner life, to a transcendental notion." (Citrus: A History, p. 163)
Although not usually so classified, Laszlo sees this as a religious painting: "symbolic homage to the Virgin Mary," especially indicated by the symbolism of the rose (divine love, purity), the lemons and oranges (chastity), and the citrus blossoms (fecundity). Laszlo connects this symbolism to the earlier Arab and Jewish presence in Spain. It's all very interesting, but I really wonder if he could demonstrate the connections he proposes.
I am enjoying Laszlo's book: the extremely broad interpretation of Zurbaran's painting is an example of his approach to the topic -- wide-ranging, very personal, based on historic details but refusing to be limited by them.
More prosaic history in the book is also very interesting. Several years ago, I attempted to find out when and how orange juice became a commodity part of the American breakfast. Using obscure pamphlets in the University of Michigan library, I managed to find our some answers, concerning the development of citrus groves in Florida and California at the end of the 19th century, the development of railroad transport to major East-coast cities, the invention of the industrial process for making frozen OJ concentrate, and the creation of public awareness and taste for their products. Among many other parts of the history of citrus fruit, Laszlo now presents this material in a popular and accessible format. There are lots of other topics covered as well.
Tuesday, January 01, 2008
(tuna and shrimp pate with capers and roasted peppers)
Liver Come Back to Me
(pate de campagne: pork and veal with chicken livers, pistachios, and Calvados)
(assorted crudités, hummus, and artichoke dip)
(Lana’s eggplant sandwiches)
(deviled eggs with a touch of curry)
Sharp Cheese and Flat Bread:
I’m So Blue (triple cream Castello)
French Rounds (herbed chevre)
Love Me Tenderloin
with Darius Mayo (garlic sauce)
Salmon Chanted Evening
with Placido DoMango
(Michigan salad with raspberry maple vinaigrette)
Give Peas A Chance
(black eye pea salad with a cumin-citrus dressing)
Little Russian Salad
(Lana’s potato salad)
Mio Babbino Carrot Salad
(Kyrghyz carrot salad with garlic and cumin)
Leslie’s Flute Salad
Porgy & Breads/ Rock’n Rolls
A Taste of Honey Cake
(Nat’s famous rosemary-ginger shortbread)
Under My Thumb-prints
(My grandmother’s strudel)
Chocolate-dipped Straw Berios
To Phil-Up The Glass:
Appalachian Spring Water
Almost Hear You Ci-der
Diet Pop (Nat King Cola, ‘Round Seven Up)